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David Cameron’s stomping around the North today, yet again trying to persuade people that having elected mayors is a good idea.

I’ve set out before why I don’t like the current system of mayors (and their related ‘democratic’ position, Police and Crime Commissioners). In short, by concentrating power in one person and then severely restricting the ability of others to have any checks on that power, they’re effectively anti-democratic. There are good arguments for separating executive and legislative power at all levels, but democracy is about more than just voting. Most of these proposals just seem to assume that having a named individual responsible for some area of government magically makes it more accountable, without paying any attention to how that accountability takes place. As we saw with the farce over Shaun Wright, Police and Crime Commissioners are so unaccountable in practice, there was no body with the power to remove him from office.

When David Cameron and others do their pitches for elected mayors – despite the public rejecting them twice as often as they accept them – there’s a simple way to test how much they actually believe the arguments about improved accountability and democracy. Simply ask him this – should the position of Prime Minister be directly elected?

Sure, the position covers a while country rather than just a local government unit, but the principle is the same. The PM has an important role to lead and represent the country, but the people have no direct say in who gets to fill that role, so is it truly accountable and democratic? If our cities and towns will flourish more because they can directly elect their leaders, who can say how much the country would flourish if its leader was directly elected?

I’m not convinced elected mayors are some magical panacea for the problems of local government, and I strongly doubt that directly electing the Prime Minister would solve even one-tenth of the problems that it would cause. However, those that advocate directly electing more and more posts in the name of more democracy and accountability are heading towards this, even if they won’t admit it.

As I said a few weeks ago, I think there is a strong argument for looking at how we can better separate Government and Parliament, especially the question of whether ministers need to hold a seat in Parliament to do their jobs. I don’t think a directly elected Prime Minister is the answer, but then I’m not the one arguing that electing a post suddenly makes everything better.

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The disciples of Tony Blair exist in a strange situation, uncommon to previous followers of former British Prime Ministers. Unlike his predecessors, Blair left office while he was still relatively young and has hovered around the edges of British politics, with his followers still clearly hoping for his glorious return. For all the fervent belief of the Thatcherites, they never seriously expected her to make a comeback, but Blair’s still younger than several 20th century Prime Ministers were when they began the job. One can envisage him and the remaining true Blairite believers awaiting that time when a nation turns its eyes back to him and begs him to return at our hour of need.

Part of this process is the occasional hagiography of the Blair era from political commentators you’d expect to know better. Andrew Rawnsley’s today’s example, yet somehow managing to omit the word ‘moral’ before ‘vacuum’ in a description of Blair’s legacy to British politics. However, it’s the usual contention that Blair had a unique ability to get people’s support that no one currently has, and was thus solely responsible for Labour’s post-97 successes.

846_bigThere’s a myth put about by the Blairites that without him, Labour would never have won the 1997 election. While he may have had some influence on the size of the majority they won, to claim Labour couldn’t have won without him is, to use the technical term, utter bollocks. Claims like this forget just how toxic the Tories had become before Blair became leader and the general sense of national mourning that followed the death of John Smith. The Private Eye cover here is just an example of that – a sense that the country had lost the inevitable next Prime Minister. The job of any Labour leader post-92 was to hold their nerve, avoid any big errors and walk into Downing Street at the end of the process. Those that claim Blair delivered this victory need to explain how any other potential Labour leader wouldn’t have managed it, rather than pointing to his good fortune at being in the right place at the right time to benefit from it.

In a historical context, his victories weren’t as impressive as the encomiums like to portray them as either. It’s always worth remembering that the largest number of votes received by a party in a UK general election was by John Major’s Conservatives in 1992 and that Blair’s landslides were symptoms of a flawed electoral system that couldn’t cope with multi-party politics rather than any ringing endorsement of him. (For example, Labour received fewer votes in 2001 than they did in 1992) His supposedly great triumphs were the result of Labour being able to take best advantage of having a plurality of an electorate whose old allegiances were breaking down, not the ringing endorsement of the masses some would have you believe.

At his peak, Blair and New Labour were more popular than any leaders and parties are now, but that’s not exactly a difficult achievement. The trend in British general elections since the 70s has been a slow decline in the vote going to the big two parties, masked by an electoral system that protects them. Tony Blair’s just another point of data on that long downhill trend, where Labour’s decline was hidden by the absolute collapse of the Conservatives. To act as those resurrecting him would bring those times back is to ignore longer-term trends in favour of some Great Man theory of history, ignoring the luck of good timing and claiming it was skill instead.

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This post from Alex Harrowell on the travails of UKIP candidate selection and this post on Conservative Home about the five different types of UKIPper (itself a variation on Alex’s ‘Three UKIPs’ idea) got me thinking before Christmas, and for once those thoughts remain coherent after it.

Whether you think there are three, five, seven or ninety-five of them, it’s clear that UKIP does now have a set of factions within it, even if none of them are formally organised. That’s not unusual for a party of its size and is perhaps inevitable for a party with rapid growth and an image that’s defined more by what it’s against than what it’s for. Being anti-EU or anti-immigration doesn’t come with a coherent set of other policy preferences and so people joining UKIP are quite likely to have other opinions that spread across the political spectrum.

This isn’t something that’s unique to UKIP, of course. Most growing and developing parties, especially those resting on issues outside of the normal left-right divide, have to go through a process of determining ‘but what are we for?’ at some point within their existence. One prominent example is the debate between the ‘Realo’ and ‘Fundi’ wings of the German Greens after their first electoral breakthroughs, which was mirrored in the debate over the Green 2000 proposals in the British Greens.

At some point, UKIP is going to have to go through their version of that fight. There’s signs that it might have kicked off in a small way already with the current fights going on in the party over candidate selection for the General Election, but the party has an advantage in that it has a leader who isn’t strongly tied to any faction. In terms of party organisation, Farage’s ability to say what his audience wants to hear and to not commit too strongly to any positive policy means that all the factions, however nascent they may be, think he’s one of them.

There’s an idea put forward in the academic literature on party leadership (see Stark or Quinn, for instance) that’s relevant here – the first thing a potential party leader must be able to do to win the leadership is to be able to unify the party. While others might seem more acceptable in policy terms or electability, the key to becoming a leader is to be able to appeal to (and lead) all the sections of the party, not one.

The big question for UKIP is what happens if and when Farage decides (again) that he doesn’t want to be leader any more? Two interesting factors come into play: first, there doesn’t appear to be anyone else in the party who can unify them in the way Farage does, and second, the way the party elects its leaders doesn’t do anything to encourage a unifier. Where most parties use some form of preference voting in their leadership elections (even the Tories have an exhaustive ballot of MPs) to ensure the winner has to be able to get majority support, UKIP’s leadership elections are first past the post, where the winner merely needs a plurality of support. What that means is that to become UKIP leader when there’s a vacancy, you don’t need to appeal to the majority of the party. Instead, you just need to get the support of the largest minority in the party and hope that the rest of the factions remain divided. In a party where no one’s quite sure of the relative sizes and strengths of the factions, what we could see is a very vicious battle for dominance.

It actually puts Farage into a strong position, as he can use the ‘apres moi, la deluge’ argument to see off any challenges and threats to his leadership, but if he chooses to go, we may well find that UKIP can keep entertaining us in new ways.

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If nothing else, he’s better at using multiple clauses in a sentence than his brother, but it is a declaration surrounded by a whole forest of ambiguity. He’s not exploring running for President but actively exploring the possibility of running for President, an act of unintentional political philosophy that could lead to disaster if he decides he first needs to fully comprehend the meaning of his decision to actively explore this possibility before even beginning to properly explore where it all might lead to.

Of course, it’s in the nature of US Presidential elections that candidates need to go through all the rigmarole of not actively running so they don’t have to answer any actual questions but can still begin to raise the vast funds needed to see if it’s possible to raise the immense funds required to mount a serious bid for the Presidency. There will likely have been a pre-public exploratory phase before all this, just to make sure things won’t completely fizzle out, which is why there’s a big jump from thinking about running for President, and exploring it. One you do privately, the other you do publicly and are pretty much committing yourself to run barring utter disaster – it’s the political equivalent of the one finger that’s just touching the chess piece after the move, hoping you haven’t missed something really obvious now it’s in place.

Once the candidate has formed the exploratory committee, they’re pretty much running for President, even if they’re still being coy about it. In fact, I can only think of one US politician who explored running for President and then decided not to run – the late Paul Wellstone in 1999 – though there are many who explored, ran and then realised they should have explored more.

Jeb Bush becoming President in 2016 would prove my prediction from 2012 correct, even if I wouldn’t want it to be. I do hope his explorations will include an extended discussion of whether history repeats itself, and if so, just how farcical a process the election would need to be to have him elected by the House of Representatives like John Quincy Adams and who the Andrew Jackson of the twenty-first century would be.

(Edit: And just after I posted this, I saw this article pondering on the possibility of the both US parties splitting in two, which is surely a sign of us being in 1824 all over again)

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350x350.fitandcropIt’s been a while since I’ve done a review of anything here, but I wanted to spread the word about this production, in the hope that it might spur some of you into going to see it.

The Fitzrovia Radio Hour are a company that have been producing live versions of 40s and 50s style radio broadcasts – complete with traditional sound effects produced on stage – since 2008. They’ve come together with Colchester’s Mercury Theatre to produce a version of Dracula that’s a fantastic piece of stage comedy.

We’re invited in as the studio audience to watch a BBC radio production of Dracula. The company’s lead performer, Mr Starkey (perhaps better known to my readers as Doctor Who‘s Strax) helps set the scene for us. Some of the regular repertory company’s finest performers will be presenting us with a dramatic presentation of Bran Stoker’s Dracula, and to add some verisimilitude to the performance a real-life Romanian aristocrat, Count Alucard, will be playing the part of Dracula. Meanwhile, outside the studio, Britain is about to be battered by violent storms accompanied by thunder and lightning, and a number of mysterious deaths have been occurring in the vicinity of Broadcasting House…

What follows is two stories in one: the adaptation of Dracula being performed with all the plum tones and ham acting one expects from early radio drama; and the events going on inside the studio as members of the company renew old feuds and start new flirtations, cues are missed, sound effects are generated, and Count Alucard’s behaviour becomes increasingly harder to explain as method acting.

The whole thing comes together to produce a wonderfully funny performance and the cast are all superb in their roles, bringing some perfect comic timing (including some wonderfully comedic pauses in the delivery) and interaction with the audience. My only complaint would be that there are so many different things happening on stage at various times it’s hard to be sure that you’re experiencing everything that’s going on – while your attention is focused on the performers at the main microphone, something else could be going on at the effects table at one side of the stage and with the piano player at the other. It’s all expertly put together, and the escalating level of farce is carefully managed to not overwhelm the story.

I’d definitely recommend going to see this if you can – it’s on at the Mercury until the 15th November (go here to book tickets and find out more) and I don’t know if it will have performances anywhere else afterwards, or if it will just be a little theatrical gem for us in the East to tell you all about.

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Until I’d read this Guardian story about it I’d never heard of KidZania. That was possibly a good thing, because now I’m despairing that we live in a world in which it exists. If you’ve never heard of it until now, here’s how they describe themselves:

KidZania provides children and their parents a safe, unique, and very realistic educational environment that allows kids between the ages of four to twelve to do what comes naturally to them: role-playing by mimicking traditionally adult activities. As in the real world, children perform “jobs” and are either paid for their work (as a fireman, doctor, police officer, journalist, shopkeeper, etc.) or pay to shop or to be entertained. The indoor theme park is a city built to scale for children, complete with buildings, paved streets, vehicles, a functioning economy, and recognizable destinations in the form of “establishments” sponsored and branded by leading multi-national and local brands.

Yes, your kids can have a fun day out learning that their lives will be worthless unless they hand themselves over to a multinational brand. KidZania, it seems, allows kids to have a small amount of fun at the start, but then they have to go and earn themselves some ‘KidZos’ by working before they can do anything else. Yes, someone’s finally found a way to drain all the fun out of kids dressing up and role-playing, and made sure it’s now a ‘learning experience’ where kids can ‘acquire real-life skills, learn about working and having a career and are introduced to the fundamentals of financial literacy’. Because that’s a fun day out, not a hideous penetration of the adult world into the child’s. What is wrong with letting children just have a good time? In other contexts, child labour is a bad thing, yet somehow KidZania strives to make it acceptable.

I’ve written before about how we’ve let workism conquer the world, and this is a perfect example of it. People don’t usually accept and adopt ideologies out of the blue, and they often just accept the ideologies they’re exposed to as a child. Just like Soviet children could join the Young Pioneers to develop Marxism-Leninism from an early age, so KidZania can instil the value of workism and loyalty to corporations from an early age. There’s something sickeningly admirable in how it takes something kids already do by themselves, removes all the imagination from it, sticks some advertising on top and then charges for the privilege of doing it. (And, of course, makes sure that the parents have plenty of opportunities to spend their money in the nearby shops while their kids are kept busy)

I’m all for giving kids a chance to play in their own world and not be told what to do by adults, but KidZania is only pretending to be that. Read through their site and you’ll find that this supposedly child-run world is anything but:

“Zupervisors” are on hand to introduce AND provide support for each activity. Zupervisors are trained adults who guide and help kids accomplish their tasks as they work and play.

Everything in KidZania is planned out and organised, with children being led through an experience, not set free to discover for themselves. It’s perhaps a perfect metaphor for a world run by workism, where big corporations have laid out the unalterable framework of experience and everyone’s task is to process along the appointed routes, with supervisors in place to make sure no one wanders too far from the crowd. Notice that the ‘jobs’ on offer are all about working for someone in a prescribed role, not about anything involving creativity, individuality, learning for its own sake or researching.

All it needs to completely represent their future is to allow rich parents to buy currency for their children so they don’t have to do any work while they’re there and can just enjoy watching all the others work while they don’t have to, but still get all the rewards. Or maybe that would lead to the kids learning too much too young?

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Welcome to Essex

Before entering the county, please update your list of things that are not allowed in Essex to include artwork by Banksy and green tarmac. Please note that the ban on electric light after midnight remains in place. Thank you for visiting.

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